Immigration is a dicey issue for 2020 Democrats as they seek Latino vote

Despite large majorities of Democrats and Latinos who support the liberalization of immigration laws, the party’s 2020 presidential candidates are finding it’s still a dicey issue on the campaign trail.

The topic of immigration has the potential to rally or dampen efforts to turn out the growing Latino electorate, a group that showed its potential in the 2018 midterms and is critical to winning up and down the ballot in several key states.

In this election cycle, candidates are being pushed by younger progressive Latinos who are demanding more than just a promise of a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers” or an immigration reform bill in the first 100 days — instead calling for a stop to deportations.

Democrats are wrestling with trying to appeal to its growing progressive base while not losing more centrist and rural voters — which also includes Latino voters.

Joe Biden, the former vice president, has found himself subject to protests over the record deportations carried out by the Obama administration.

Most recently, those protests so agitated Biden that he admonished an activist who was pressing him to declare a stop on deportations. “You should vote for Trump,” Biden told the activist.

Before that eruption, a top Latina staffer on Biden’s campaign, Vanessa Cardenas, who was his national coalitions director, had quit. Two unnamed friends told Politico she was frustrated that the campaign was not heeding her advice on immigration. Cardenas did not return phone messages and texts from NBC News requesting comment.

Matt Baretto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a Democratic polling firm, said that many Latino voters are looking at Democratic candidates and asking for bold action on immigration.

That’s why Julián Castro’s promise to decriminalize crossing the border, changing it from criminal violations — a misdemeanor on the first attempt and felony on repeated attempts — to civil, has been well received, Baretto said.

In a poll for Univision after the Miami Democratic debate, Latino Decisions found Latino voters heavily supported Castro’s proposal.

“Most of the proposals coming from Democrats really go back to the Obama administration’s second term, where they had the discretion to say (to Immigration and Customs Enforcement) only focus in on the criminals and leave everyone else alone,” Baretto said. “That’s where the community is on this.”

A Latino Decisions poll in 2012 showed a majority of Latino voters were upset about the record deportations that were happening under the Obama administration. Before that year’s midterm elections, former President Barack Obama became the subject of protests organized by former allies, young Latinos who had been part of his winning coalition in 2008.

Facing criticism that she wasn’t calling out Obama enough on the deportations, Janet Murguía, president of UnidosUS, formerly the National Council of La Raza, called Obama “deporter in chief” in a speech at its annual gala. That moniker stuck and became fodder for political opponents who held it up as evidence that Obama and Democrats were taking Latino voters for granted.

Obama turned things around by authorizing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gave younger immigrants temporary, renewable protection from deportation and permission to work. Studies show the program has bolstered the nation’s workforce and contributed billions to the national economy.

While that helped Obama win re-election in 2012, the 27 percent Latino turnout rate in the 2014 midterms was a record low, according to Pew Research Center. Several days after the 2014 election, Obama used executive action to issue a new policy that resulted in fewer deportations and created a program similar to DACA for parents of U.S. citizen and legal resident children.

Those policies took a sharp turn in the past four years. President Donald Trump has implemented hardline immigration policies including severely restricted immigration, increased deportations, an attempt to end DACA, the separation of children, including babies, from parents at the border, and much tougher restrictions on seeking asylum in the U.S. and immigrating legally.

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Suzanne Gamboa